Olympic Golfer Lexi Thompson on Getting Her Mental Health Game Right for Tokyo

The two-time Olympian currently sits at 34th heading into round four at the Tokyo Games.

Lexi Thompson is no stranger to the pressures of the spotlight. The now 26-year-old Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) athlete made her debut at the US Open at just 12—before turning pro, and joining the ranks of Red Bull’s most notable athletes just three years later.

She’s racked up an impressive 10 titles in her tenure on tour, claimed a major at the 2014 Kraft Nabisco Championship, and teed up for the 2016 Rio Games. While representing Team USA in her Olympic debut—which happened to mark the sport’s first appearance at the games in over a century—Thompson tied for 19th.

On Wednesday, she made her return to the Olympic stage in Tokyo.

“It’s an honor. Making it to Rio was a very big deal, especially with golf not being [included] for such a long time, it was just a big deal for the sport,” Thompson told Thrillist. “But to be able to go back, put on my country’s colors, and represent, there’s just nothing like it. To be surrounded by the best of the best athletes, it’s an amazing feeling.”

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

While, naturally, the world No. 12 golfer has spent the months leading up to Tokyo prepping her game on the links, it isn’t all drives and putts and chips to get there.

“I’ve been practicing a lot, not only on my game, but on the mental side. Making sure that I’m physically and emotionally ready,” she explained, just a week prior to arriving in Japan. “It’s been about mentally working on myself... It’s not just for one event either, but making sure I’m in a good place going into such a big week. I’m slowly building a great mindset.”

Mental health has become a hot topic at the Olympics, with Simone Biles withdrawing from five of seven events as a result. Four-time grand slam champ Naomi Osaka similarly vocalized the pressures of performing in an elite sporting event, especially at a scale such as the Olympics, calling the stress of it all “a bit much.” Tokyo 2020, and its Olympians, will be remembered for a legacy beyond just superhuman speed and double-twisting Yurchenkos. It's opened the door to a conversation many were unwilling to have: that mental health matters just as much as physical health.

“There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes that people don’t see, that we don’t allow them to see,” Thompson said. “I think it’s important to make sure that you’re in a good place, no matter what that takes, always making sure you’re happy and healthy. You won’t perform your best when you’re not there physically and emotionally. You’ve got to take care of yourself first and foremost no matter what anyone else says.”

For world renowned athletes like Biles, Osaka, and Thompson, emotional wellbeing is just as important to their performance as that of the physical side. Struggle is struggle, and an injury is an injury—whether it manifests in a broken ankle or as anxiety.

“I think [mental health] is just as important, if not more,” she continued. “I don’t think a lot of people realize how much athletes go through. Yes training wise, but the emotions, the ups and downs we go through. I don’t think a lot of people see that as a factor. They just see the glamorous part of it.”

And while it’s tough to see any athlete struggle—“we’re not just robots,” Thompson said—it’s forced a conversation. A topic that was once buried in stigma has earned a more public platform, thanks in large to the 2020 games and its Olympians.

“I think you’ll see a lot more people speak about it,” Thompson said. “A lot of people keep it bottled in and are afraid to admit what they’re struggling with, which is understandable. We all have struggles—athletes or not—and I think that’s what people need to realize. We have feelings too that we need to consider.”

As Thompson gears up for Friday’s final, medaling doesn’t seem to be her top priority. Being there, representing her country among the globe’s greatest, just may be enough.

“This is a dream come true, being here and being surrounded by the best,” she said. “It opens up your eyes like, ‘all right, I made it.’ This is what all your hard work is for.”

Check back during the games for all of Thrillist’s continuing Olympics coverage. Think of us like an all-knowing friend watching along with you to answer all the most important questions, like how heavy Olympic medals are, or why this year’s games are still called the 2020 Olympics. We'll explain everything from what ROC means to why athletes are sleeping on cardboard beds, and much, much more.

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Megan Schaltegger is a staff writer at Thrillist.